Monks, Monophony, Musical Notation, & Machaut

Soon I’ll mark the end of my tenure in studying western art music to expand globally and dig my hands into the sounds I’ve been craving for years. Over the next week, I want to spend time recapping periods, developments, styles, and listing favorites.

First up on the chopping block are the Middle Ages (450-1450). I have this image in my head of this whole period being in sepia tone, and every impression has either an axe or a lute in it. I’m sure a therapist somewhere could dissect that.

This is going to be kind of a speed-date between myself and the music from the Middle Ages. Ready? Set? Go!

We know that during this time Christianity was spreading like wildfire throughout Europe and people were avoiding death from disease and conflict. The Roman Empire fell in 476, Charlemagne found his way to a throne a few hundred years later, and on top of it Islam was growing in the Middle East. Dante and Chaucer were churning out their words, and somewhere people were thinking about how to have a little more fun by incorporating music into their lives, or at least into their relationships with God.

Most music was sacred, monophonic (a single melody/no harmony), modal, and usually a cappella. Form and structure were birthed from repeating sections in vocal music. Texts were set to music and became Gregorian chant. The church became the first patronage system of music, so most composers of the time were associated with the church. The example below follows early chant notation. Check it out:

Secular music of the time was also monophonic with some instrumental accompaniment, and modal (church modes) as well.

What instruments? There were wind, string, and percussion instruments. Though there were many more instruments that sprouted at the end of this era, these are a few of more prominent ones:

Psalter (Image from

  • Recorder
  • Harp
  • Psalter
  • Percussion
  • Bagpipe

    Musical notation hadn’t found its way to a 5-line staff until halfway through this period when neumatic notation (see video above) arose, though folks had started to fiddle with pictorial notation and hand symbols. Then a 4-line staff was used. Meanwhile my favorite guy, Guido, was developing solmization (note-naming with syllables) for singers and he devised the Guidonian Hand (which would make a killer tattoo).

    (Guidonian Hand - Thanks, Wikipedia)

    It was tricky and time-consuming to copy anything, so once notation was standardized it wasn’t copied often (usually only by monks/nuns with free time and the discipline to stay bored and get painful hand cramps).

    Toward the end of this period, polyphony (3 + 4 parts) seeped out of the churches and became a primary focus of composers. The result = harmony. Voices & instruments were often mixed and nonimitative counterpoint dominated the theoretical scene. Instruments were used to double vocal parts. Harmony was based on open 5ths, octaves, and unisons. Pieces were built on a cantus firmus (fixed song) and the structure is formed from repetitions of that melody.

    Then suddenly, the college music majors’ nightmare came true. Huge changes and transitions in music notation and theory unraveled. What would have been a 10-page theory text now turned into 100 pages, and they would have to get up and memorize it all from 8am-noon 5 days a week in spite of the keg party the night before. The cantus firmus was phased out, a 5 line staff became common, and rhythm became more complex. 3rds and 6ths were treated as dissonances. Rondos, ballads, early madrigals (we’ll explore them more in the Renaissance), and isorhythmic motets (Isowhat?) popped up. What’s a troubadour to do? Find out by watching this:

    Popular forms of music included plainchant, chanson, trope, and conductus. Here’s a FABULOUS conductus example. These boys are talented:

    Maybe England couldn’t hack “the new theory book” that was being written, because France & Germany started dominating the music scene at the end of this era. France, in all its noble glory, built a sophisticated court culture and music became an important activity within it. Although the line is blurred, this caused a slight shift in music being performed for the courts instead of the church (often they intertwined). Polyphony shifted with it, and more secular pieces were written.

    Lastly, let’s look at a few composers:

    Right before Hurricane Katrina, I played a piece called “Medieval Suite” by Rob Nelson (it was composed in 1983 – not quite the middle ages, although some would call it the dark ages of aqua net). The piece is really great to introduce young wind players to the music of early composers. Obviously, it’s not for the correct instrumentation of the time (it’s scored for wind ensemble). The piece was composed in three movements, each in homage to a different composer of the time: Leonin, Perotin, and Machaut. The best part about that concert was playing all of those gorgeous 5ths in an old chapel. Being a brass player, there’s nothing simpler and more pure sounding. The piece integrates the styles of Gregorian chant, organum, and other early choral writing. It’s not an arrangement of their works at all – it just mimics their stylistic characteristics. Here’s a recent recording of the Machaut movement by UConn’s Concert Band:

    Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): German musician & writer. Said to be inspired by divine visions (though most think it was migraines), she grew up in a convent and wrote most of her works for female voices.

    Moniot D’Arras (1213-1239): French composer & monk in the Abbey of Arras. He composed monophonic chansons & songs, both sacred & secular.

    Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377): French composer of both monophonic & polyphonic music. He lived during the Plague & the Hundred Years War between France & England. His works include both sacred & secular – motets, ballads, rondos, chansons.

    I’ll leave you today with this beautiful video clip.

    Hildegard von Bingen – Ordo virtutum:

    Onward & Upward!


    1. 1.) Thank you! This is a great speed date with the middle ages. I learn best when I understand broad context first.

      2.) I love your wit. I knew you were a brass player within the first few paragraphs. 🙂

    2. Thanks for stopping by, Rachel! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I have every time period done like this, although many of them are sitting on my computer as drafts.

      And yes, I have been told that I am indeed a brass player.. and a leo at that. Figures, eh? 🙂

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